News broke last week that Chinese hackers had compromised computer databases belonging to the Office of Personnel Management. On the surface, reports of the Obama administration scrambling to contain the damage done by having this information exposed may not make sense. Is it really that big a deal if the Chinese stole lists of government employees? It is when the list is of Americans with top-secret security clearances. According to SOFREP sources, it isn’t just benign human-resources-type information that was stolen, but also lists of active CIA personnel and information pertaining to front companies used as commercial cover by the same agency.
State-sponsored Chinese hackers have been breaking into American computer networks for decades now, with the information stolen usually being attributed by the press as being information gathered for identity theft, fraud, or in some cases, industrial espionage. No big deal if some Americans lose money from their bank accounts, after all it is insured by the federal government. The damage done by industrial espionage is not readily apparent either, since it will be years until we see Chinese stealth fighters developed with stolen American technology.
By hacking into American computer systems over and over again, the People’s Republic of China has probed our defenses to assess what the U.S. government will do in response to cyber-intrusions. The answer? Not a damn thing. We will not respond to cyber attacks with cyber-retaliation, military force, economic sanctions, or even sternly worded diplomatic letters. We probably should have unrolled the red carpet for China’s hackers and told them that we are just fine with them stealing our data. Our limp-wristed politicians are too afraid of upsetting our economic relations with China to do anything about it.
But the reality is that China’s hackers are not stealing personal identification information from police departments, large corporations, and the federal government for purposes of committing fraud. The real reason is far more insidious. This is actually the information-gathering process the Chinese are conducting as a part of what the U.S. military would call operational preparation of the environment (OPE) also known as operational preparation of the battlespace (OPB).
OPE is setting the conditions for success prior to the initiation of open military hostilities between two belligerent nations who plan to go to war. More specifically, OPE entails sending in intelligence service personnel to recruit rings of spies, burying caches of weapons and equipment, and developing targeting information for people and critical infrastructure. Operational preparation of the environment could even include assassinating key personalities in order to remove them prior to D-Day in a war that hasn’t happened yet.
China’s hackers are, in fact, conducting OPE—preparing the battlefield for a war that has not happened yet. To understand why, you have to first understand China’s strategy.
The Chinese government has deceived the Western world into believing that they are a friend and ally, one that will eventually transition into a democratic state. The reality is that China fully intends to surpass the United States economically, and then militarily. They also have no interest in becoming a democracy. The PRC’s long-term goal is to become a Ba, which translates as “tyrant.” More accurately, they wish to become a hegemon. While China makes overtures of integrating into the existing global order, the truth is that China seeks to become a revisionist power. Revealing this strategy now would be devastating, as it could lead to an open military confrontation with the West, “unraveling years of patient assiduous efforts to build China into a economical and geopolitical hegemon” (Pillsbury, 136).
Humiliations at the hands of the West still burn deep with China’s hawks, the ying pai. These feelings of humiliation and nationalism have motivated them to develop an anti-Western doctrine, humorously enough based around the writings of people like Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley (Pillsbury, 18). These Chinese elites are said to refer to the ancient proverb, tao guang yang hui, which means to bide your time and build your capabilities. However, another translation is, “overturning the old hegemon and exacting revenge” (Pillsbury, 33).
In order to jump several generations ahead of America, the Chinese have developed crash weapons technology programs in secret, hacked into critical American infrastructure, and fooled the West into supporting their economy. To this end, the Chinese seek to develop da tong or “an era of unipolar dominance” (Pillsbury, 39), which is a far cry from the multi-polar world we talk about here at SOFREP. These Chinese elites see the geo-political chessboard as a zero-sum game, with cooperation being nothing more than a facade to get what they secretly want.
Much of Chinese strategy is derived from the period of the Warring States, China’s medieval era. While there is no direct comparison, the chronicles of the Warring States period have their best analog in Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” The Warring States period produces axioms and strategy for the Chinese military and elite class.
China knows full well that they are in no state to challenge America in a direct military confrontation, so in order to gain an advantage, the People’s Liberation Army is developing a series of secret weapons referred to as shashoujian or “Assassin’s Mace,” a term derived from Chinese folklore. Known as program 863, China’s secret weapons programs include anti-satellite weapons, directed-energy platforms, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons, anti-aircraft carrier missiles, and various forms of electronic and cyber warfare (Pillsbury, 139). Initiated in 1986 by Deng Xiaoping, it was reevaluated in 2001 “with the help of foreign experts and widened to support China’s competitiveness in international markets” (Hannas, 12).
That’s right, foreign experts. China is developing the technologies to defeat us, and they are doing it with the nearly full complacency and acquiescence of the West. Not only are they developing these weapons with stolen technology, but also with foreign consultants, in this case probably from the World Bank.
One means of gaining an asymmetrical advantage against the United States is by having computer hackers prepare the environment for war by stealing military, industrial, and economic secrets. These hackers belong to over a dozen different bureaucracies within the Chinese government, such as Unit 61398. Hundreds of successful cyber attacks will help the Chinese acquire total information dominance over the battle space at, or just prior to, the commencement of hostilities. One intelligence analyst described the damage that could be done to America in the event of war by Chinese cyber-warfare as being like “removing the spark plugs from an engine” just as Uncle Sam gets behind the wheel and turns the key.
Where China intends to fight
It would be easy to interpret this analysis as meaning that China intends to attack and invade America, but that is not the case. There is no known evidence from intelligence assessments, defectors, interviews, or China’s military and technology build-up itself to suggest that China wants to land troops on American shores. In fact, such a reckless action seems quite contrary to Chinese strategy. We then have to ask what China is preparing the battle space for? The answer: Taiwan, the Senkaku islands, and other military aggressions we cannot yet foresee.
What the Chinese are planning for a is a local war fought under high-technology conditions in which, “PLA strategists expect such conflicts to be characterized by limited political objectives and the use of information technology and by being highly mobile, lethal, and resource intensive” (Cliff, xv). The People’s Liberation Army divides the tactics used in this future war into soft-kill and hard-kill categories. Soft-kills include attacks against American computer networks and jamming. Hard-kills include the employment of ballistic missiles, explosives, and directed energy weapons (Cliff, xvi). American centers of power projection such as logistical hubs, airfields, and refueling stations may also be attacked by Chinese Special Operations Forces.
This is China’s Anti-Access/Access-Denial (A2AD) strategy. To invade Taiwan or other targets in the South China Sea, they don’t have to defeat American forces outright, they just have to delay us long enough for their forces to achieve their limited military objectives in the region. In order to implement this military stratagem, China will wait for when the time is right, when the shi or momentum of an event is already in their favor. This is when China will strike first with what they call da ji zeng shi, meaning, “strike with force to increase shi” (Pillsbury, 146).
The PLA believes that a “preemptive surprise attack can mean the difference in determining the outcome of a military confrontation and can set the terms for a broader political debate (such as a territorial dispute)” (Pillsbury, 146). In other words, China will use da ji zeng shi to revise the current global order. Once they deny American access to the South China Sea and conduct an amphibious landing in Taiwan, they will then have the leverage to force political outcomes in their favor. Make no mistake, after China has invaded Taiwan, there will be no great heroic American military action to re-take the island. The damage will have been done.
Part of achieving this first strike against America, when China decides their shi is ready, will be to wreak havoc with American computer infrastructure, all done using information acquired through the hundreds of probing attacks and information thefts that the U.S. government has been desperately trying to ignore. If the PRC does in fact have access to the names of Americans holding security clearances and information pertaining to U.S. intelligence front companies, then the kind of damage they could do boggles the mind. Yes, this is exactly the type of information that the Chinese can use to implement an anti-access/access-denial strategy and gain information dominance.
Again, China does not have to beat us in an outright shooting war, they just have to slow us down until they have achieved their narrow political and military objectives. “It is possible that the United States could actually be defeated by China-not in the sense that the U.S. military would be destroyed but in the sense that China would accomplish its military-political objectives while preventing the United States from accomplishing some or all of its own political and military objectives” (Cliff, 112) notes a Rand Corporation white paper on the topic.
Our politicians think in terms of four year election cycles. Chinese politicians think in terms of hundred-year plans. Most Americans have attention spans that can barely last through a three and a half minute music video, so who do you think has the advantage here?
But our enemies are not yet ready to emerge from the shadows. We are now approaching a dangerous time in which China is preparing to overtake America economically, and Chinese policymakers may very well convince themselves that their anti-access/access-denial strategy would successfully prevent America from intervening in the South China Sea. The strategic momentum, the shi, of events is beginning to pick up its pace.
By hacking information about the CIA and other government agencies, the Chinese government is essentially compiling a massive database of any and all personnel employed by the U.S. government. What they plan do to with that information in the future is unknown, but whatever it is it should scare the hell out of you. The day China wants to invade Taiwan or take other aggressive military action, the Chinese government could empty the bank accounts of every U.S. government employee. They wouldn’t even be able to get to work at the Pentagon, the FBI, the CIA, SOCOM, PACOM, or wherever else because they couldn’t buy a tank of gas.
China could further prepare the battle space by tailoring their information warfare to key individuals, like shutting down Admiral McRaven’s entire electronic profile, emptying his bank accounts, shutting down his cell phone, and changing his user credentials on sensitive computer terminals which would remove this key personality from the chessboard on D-Day.
Cliff, Roger. Entering the Dragon’s Lair.
Hannas, William. Chinese Industrial Espionage.
Pillsbury, Michael. The Hundred Year Marathon.